We all know that Valentine’s Day is considered the day of lovers practically all over the world, with a consumerism that often reaches levels to say the least embarrassed. However, the origins of this festival of consumerism, false lovers, cupids and hearts are actually dark, bloody and a bit muddled.
The origins are very old, certainly pagan, and are rooted in Roman times. From February 13 to 15 in fact the Romans celebrated the festival of Lupercalia, which had the function of purifying man and blessing the arrival of the new fertile season. These feasts were celebrated practically from the beginning of the empire (44 BC) until its end (496 AD), far beyond the conversion to Christianity in Rome.
During the ceremony, goats and dogs were sacrificed, and the festival was celebrated by priests called Luperci, who were completely naked except for the “private parts”, covered only with the skin of the sacrificed animals. The skin of the goat was used in stripes as a kind of harmless whip, which was thrown across the Palatine hill to promote the fertility of the earth. In addition to the land were also hit the inhabitants of Rome, especially women, who volunteered to bail out hoping for a rapid pregnancy.
The Roman romantics were often drunk naked, and young women would actually line up for the men to hit them, because they believed this would make them fertile.
The brutal celebration also included a matchmaking lottery, in which young men drew the names of women from a jar. The couple would then be coupled up for the duration of the festival or longer, if the match was right.
After the Christian era in the Roman Empire, the Lupercalia turned into the celebration of a saint, Saint Valentine, who was bishop and martyr, beheaded at the venerable age of 97 on 14 February of the 273. The saint was killed by the Roman soldier Furius Placidus, who replied to an order imposed directly by the emperor Aurelian who wanted to punish the man-made affront. Valentine had in fact married a Roman soldier, Sabino, to a Christian woman, Serapia, both died a few moments after the blessing of marriage.
The Bishop Valentino was converted and appointed as a prelate at the young age of 21, in 197, when he was placed at the head of the diocese of Terni. He met the first emperor in 270, Claudius II the Gothic, who graced him from death. The second meeting, with Aureliano, did not end so lucky, and ended with the violent death of the now very old preacher Ternano. After he was tortured and beheaded, he was buried by his disciples Proculus, Efebo, and Apollonius, who also ended up martyred. His relics became a precious commodity, and they ended up throughout Italy in various churches and shrines.
Really an interesting history’s lesson…but why Valentine’s Day?
The origin of the festival that has come to the present day is clearly pagan, and the name given to it dates back to the period following the conversion of Rome to Christianity, when Pope Gelasius I, in 496, officially proclaimed it.
He muddled things in the 5th century by combining St. Valentine’s Day with Lupercalia to expel the pagan rituals, and around the same time, the Normans celebrated Galatin’s Day. Galatin meant “lover of women.” That was likely confused with St. Valentine’s Day because they sound alike.
The patron saint of lovers (but also epileptics) would have given name to February 14 for a series of coincidences, but mainly for the day of martyrdom and for his cause, the celebration of the dramatic marriage between Serapia and Sabino, right during the celebration of the Lupercalia. The assignment of the Basilica of Terni to the Benedictines, the first custodians of the church dedicated to the Christian martyr, contributed to spread the cult for the saint, with the monks who did their utmost to spread it beyond the city limits.
The image below represent a drawing depicts the death of Valentine’s Day (certainly one of the two killed). The Romans executed two men of the same name on February 14th in several years in the 3rd century AD.
Instead the exchange of gifts and greeting cards between lovers dates back to the late Middle Ages, when the concept of courtly love was introduced with Geoffrey Chaucer, even in the Anglo-Saxon world. The diffusion of the feast and its name, however, goes in part also to the Benedictine monks, ancient trustees of the Basilica Ternana and Saint Valentine. During the following centuries the business linked to the Valentine printing, greeting cards, did the rest, with huge advertising campaigns aimed at promoting this ancient and strange tradition. Also William Shakespeare helped romanticize Valentine’s Day in his work, and it gained popularity throughout Britain and the rest of Europe.